Election Watcher Weighs In On Midterm Projections

NPR's Robert Siegel gets an update on midterm elections from Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, and editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And so with the figurative starting gun for the November campaign having sounded today, we're going to ask a serious election watcher what he foresees on November 2nd. Professor Larry Sabato is director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. Welcome.

Professor LARRY SABATO (Director, Center for Politics, University of Virginia): Thank you.

SIEGEL: First, the House of Representatives: 218 is the majority of the House. The Republicans need a net gain of 39 seats to take control. How likely do you think that is?

Prof. SABATO: Well, as of Labor Day, most observers think the Republicans are likely to get to 39 and go beyond. My own Labor Day prediction is plus 47 for the Republicans. And, of course, even at 47, it's always possible the Democrats could find a way to pull that number down by concentrating their superior financial resources in certain key districts. But the conditions could not be more favorable for the Republicans. And frankly, if that number goes anywhere, it could just as easily go up for the Republicans.

SIEGEL: And when you say the conditions are favorable for the Republicans, frustration over the economy, anger at Washington, how do you sense is the most dramatic force propelling them forward?

Prof. SABATO: Well, fundamental to everything is the economy, and most people perceive it as rotten. They look at the unemployment figures. They look at the lack of growth in personal or family income. These are all factors. But I think there are other pieces to the puzzle. It's certainly true that President Obama, like all of our recent presidents, has become very polarizing. This is a midterm election, and it's about turnout. I think the most excited, enthusiastic people, whether they're motivated by love or hate, are the ones who show up. And in this case, it's very likely to be disproportionately Republican.

SIEGEL: Now, in the Senate, there are now 57 Democrats out of the 100 senators, two independents who caucus with them, so that's 59, and then 41 Republicans. There are 37 seats up for election this year. What do you think is the likely outcome there?

Prof. SABATO: Currently, we're projecting Republican gains of either eight or nine. They need 10 for full control. It is possible they can get to 10. You can see several ways that they could do it, but they'll need some lucky breaks to do that. Of course, given the way the Senate functions, if you get Democrats down to even 52, 53 seats, certainly 51, the Senate is in for a long spell of gridlock.

SIEGEL: And someone like Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut could be a very influential person in a very, very closely divided Senate.

Prof. SABATO: Absolutely. You look to people like Lieberman, maybe even Senator Ben Nelson, a conservative Democrat from Nebraska, who's up for a very difficult reelection in 2012. You never know what someone like that is going to do.

SIEGEL: Nowadays, we've been saying forever, for as long as I've been around, that the campaign kind of unofficially begins on Labor Day. But members for the House and I think the Senate as well nowadays are always campaigning.

Prof. SABATO: They're always campaigning and actually this - the Labor Day to November 2nd phase is unusually short. This is a staccato campaign. It's one of the shortest possible campaigns because of that early November 2nd day. As Politico point out, there are 57 days to the election, and that is actually fewer days than July 4th to today. July 4th seems like just yesterday.

SIEGEL: In some states, many nowadays, early voting is encouraged - absentee balloting. In Ohio, I think you can file on the 28th of September. Does that limit the effect of what anyone can accomplish with their campaign nowadays?

Prof. SABATO: Yes. Campaigns are now geared to a permanent role in kind of voting. No longer can you depend on elections being a one-day sale. It's a clearance sale lasting a month or more.

SIEGEL: Well, Professor Larry Sabato, professor of politics and director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, thank you very much for talking with us.

Prof. SABATO: Thank you.

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